Most British crime films of the ’40s and ’50s have been slow crossing the pond, but Olive Films has a winner here, a gloss on Yank gangster pix from an earlier era. Just clear of prison, a tough criminal vows to punish the gang that abandoned him, and carries it out a ruthless revenge. But I think it was a mistake for him to involve that dance hall girl…
Appointment with Crime
1946 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 91 min. / Street Date June 21, 2016 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring William Hartnell, Herbert Lom, Joyce Howard, Robert Beatty, Raymond Lovell, Alan Wheatley.
Cinematography Gerald Moss, James Wilson
Film Editor Monica Kimick
Original Music George Melachrino
Produced by Louis H. Jackson
Written and Directed by John Harlow
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Ask today’s American film fan about old British crime films, and he’ll probably not be able to come up with much more than The Third Man. What else had we seen before home video? Looser censorship restrictions at the end of the war enabled a few producers to do more realistic crime pictures. The most famous is probably John Boulting’s Brighton Rock, from a novel by Graham Greene. It mixes gritty gangster sadism with a Catholic allegory. Brit thugs have a temperament of their own. A cheap thug is called a ‘spiv.’ Due to the penalties for carrying guns, some spivs carry straight razors.
One of the first postwar thrillers in this category is 1946’s Appointment with Crime, an underworld tale modeled in part on the classic American model. William Hartnell is an unfamiliar name but an easy face to recognize in supporting roles: he makes a good impression in This Sporting Life, The Mouse that Roared and Odd Man Out and spent several years as the BBC’s very first Dr. Who.
Crook Gus Loman (Raymond Lovell) hires thief Leo Martin (William Hartnell) for a risky ‘smash and grab’ job, but when a special security device causes Leo to be captured, Loman abandons him to a jail term. Upon his release, Leo is given the cold shoulder. Determined to have his revenge, Leo manages to frame Loman by stealing his gun and using it to kill another gang member. But he doesn’t realize that the gun actually belongs to Loman’s high-powered boss Gregory Lang (Herbert Lom), who will have murders committed to get it back. Part of Leo’s scheme is to fool the gullible dime-a-dance girl Carol Dane (Joyce Howard) into providing him with an alibi. It keeps the determined detective Inspector Rogers (Robert Beatty) at bay, but only for a time. Naturally, Leo’s diabolical plans unravel, one thread after another.
Picture a humorless but equally violence-prone James Cagney, and you’ve pretty much tapped William Hartnell’s Leo Martin. As is typical in the postwar crime tales now frequently referred to a ‘Brit Noir,’ Hartnell’s character is a total rotten egg, yet his tougher-than-tough attitude makes him the man to watch. He’s given a wicked scar on his eyebrow for most of the picture, a figurative Mark of Cain. He’s also defined by an odd injury — his attempted robbery fails miserably because the ritzy jewelry store has installed a rather wicked steel shutter: as soon as Leo has smashed the window and reaches his hands in, the heavy grille falls like a guillotine, crushing both of his wrists. For the rest of the movie Leo must wear leather mini-gauntlets on his wrists for support. He’s a bitter loser in the crime game, angling to both fleece and exterminate the mugs that did him wrong.
The main interest is seeing how the English interpret generic content differently than we’re accustomed to seeing. The cops behave with decorum at all times, while Leo’s violent retribution is a complicated scheme, not a random onslaught such as hat seen in Point Blank. The ‘clever’ setup for Leo Martin’s alibi seems to have been imagined by someone who never met a criminal – his story falls apart based on exactly when he ordered Lemonade at a dance hall. For at least two scenes the cops, the lovers and the girl behind the refreshment counter do nothing but discuss the hot-button lemonade issue. Other Brit gangster films were more convincing, but this one has an enjoyably attractive villain.
Only a veneer of theatricality keeps writer-director John Harlow from transcending his own script — several of the actors play as if on a stage, and the leading lady Carol (RADA member Joyce Howard) seems far too refined to be either as common-class or as naïve as the character she plays. Robert Beatty’s policeman hero Rogers is practically a social worker for the confused (read: dumb) Carol. It doesn’t help that Beatty’s sensitive copper is called “Mister Rogers” several times. Beatty is ubiquitous in a certain strata of Brit film – he shows up in dozens of memorable pictures. Later on, he plays William Sylvester’s lunar exposition leader in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Other characterizations are vivid. Raymond Lovell’s dance hall crook is just a cowardly slime ball, but the top cheese villain Herbert Lom is memorably oily and sinister. Lom’s Gregory Lang oozes refined continental manners that seem coded for evil. Lom looks so young in this picture that viewers that know his ’60s films might think the villain in this movie is Lom’s baby-faced son. Actor Alan Wheatley plays Lang’s chief underling Noel Penn as a sneering jester clearly meant to be gay and perhaps even Lang’s gay partner. Noel disses Leo as a cheap spiv, but all Leo calls him back is ‘slave.’ I suppose that was as strong a slur as the censors allowed, even though Leo at one point shouts that Carol Dane is a slut.
A British National-Pathé release, Appointment with Crime has good but not spectacular production values. The sets appear to mostly be standing street and office interiors; I didn’t recognize any location shooting, and the lighting is good but not stylized for any particular ‘noir’ look. It’s basically a straight blow-by-blow gangster melodrama.
The English censor doesn’t allow much of anything graphic in the violence department yet the film does have some rough beatings and some rough gunplay. The wrist-crushing scene makes an impressive, painful impact. Although Leo is clearly hurt badly, there’s no blood and no blatant weapon to make a censor drop a flag. Other postwar Brit crime shows pushing the edge of the envelope had to be careful as well. Brighton Rock has some scary scenes in which spivs brandish razors, while the moody It Always Rains on Sunday sublimates its latent violence into its truly seedy atmosphere. 1948’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish jumps around its sleazy, violent material — including an implied eye gouging — so awkwardly as to almost seem like a comedy. In the early ’50s there was enough general outcry against teen delinquency for the censors to curb most crime films, especially ones involving young criminals. 1953’s Cosh Boy (The Slasher) was called out for its brutality.
If you haven’t heard of many of these pictures it’s because few were released in America. Appointment with Crime didn’t make it here until 1951. The few mainstream Brit films that made it to the U.S. were often prestige pictures with Laurence Olivier or high-budget adventure movies. It was partly marketplace bias and partly that Americans didn’t respond to English themes. But a few of these mid-level English films are quite notable. Made by the same producer and using some of the same actors, 1948’s Counterblast is the first movie to combine the idea of Germ Warfare with an Ian Fleming-grade paranoid conspiracy theme. Appointment with Crime sticks to entertaining Brit audiences with a lively bad-guy hero, worthy of our scorn.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Appointment with Crime is a highly polished presentation licensed from Paramount and Melange Pictures, a holding company for the Republic Library … all under Viacom I suppose. It’s just too easy these days to lose track of who controls what picture. The 1951 U.S. release was handled by ‘Four Continents Films,’ and likely received a minimum of bookings.
The film materials are in excellent condition. The image is clean and rich in contrast; I only noticed a tiny bit of instability in the first reel, perhaps from shrinkage or frame damage. George Melachrino’s melodramatic, overly emphatic music score sounds fine as well, even though it makes the film seem much older than it is. So does the rather bland, easy-to-forget title, which could be a generic parody, like ‘A Date with Destiny,’ or maybe ‘Rendezvous with Inconvenience.’
Are English audiences as blithely ignorant about their past subcultures as we are about our own? Do people still speak with Cockney accents, or was all those regional dialects subsumed into the homogenized culture long ago? We Yanks need a concordance to understand these Brit Noirs, to explain what spivs were and what kinds of rackets they ran. The English legal system is slightly different too, as is the relationship between the underworld and the police. A more socially conscious Brit crime movie called The Blue Lamp tries to be realistic about this setup, but I have a feeling that it is as sanitized as what we see in Appointment with Crime.
Olive Films’ welcome English subs are almost not needed, as the dialogue is so clear. Even thugs and goons articulate their speeches, which is one reason that the film comes off less realistically than it might. But whoever compiled the subs didn’t know what a Spiv is. At one point the transcript substitutes the word, ‘spit.’ What a world.
Stills for this show must be rare, which accounts for the fuzzy image chosen up top. Olive’s effective cover design is derived from a photo that originally showed William Hartnell crouching on a bed, clutching a pillow. Appointment with Crime fits neatly into the timeline of Brit crime movies, and it has a couple of fine performances that crime fans will enjoy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Appointment with Crime Blu-ray rates:
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (Bravo!)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 18, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson